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D.C. church women lead effort in HIV testing

Alana Patrice Gayle has spent decades in church singing and praying on Sundays in support of her husband, the Rev. Rubin Tendai, a pastor in the United Church of Christ.

But this Sunday, Gayle exchanged worshiping with her husband to join her son and daughter-in-law at a van parked outside the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, where people were lining up to be tested for HIV/AIDS.

“Unfortunately, the black church just doesn’t want to deal with sex, but it is very important to talk about it, especially here in D.C., where we have such a high AIDS rate,” Gayle said. “So many black African American women are contracting the disease, the black church has to be in the forefront of this.”

Although the D.C. Department of Health recently released data showing a drop in the overall number of new AIDS cases over four years, the disease remains at epidemic levels in Washington. According to the latest health department data, African Americans in the District are far more likely to have the disease, 90 percent of all women with HIV are black, and an estimated 20 to 30 percent of the District’s HIV-positive population isn’t aware they are infected.

In the District, the rate of heterosexual African American women in the poorest neighborhoods nearly doubled in two years, from 6.3 percent to 12.1 percent, according to a study released Wednesday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have joined with the National Association of People with AIDS to declare Wednesday “national testing day,” but the HIV/AIDS ministry at Plymouth didn’t want to wait.

From Gayle, 60, to Beulah Diggs, 84, older African American women were the first in line to get tested Sunday as part of Plymouth’s “Love In Action HIV & AIDS Ministry.”

Sharron Tendai, training and communications manager for HealthHIV, a national education and advocacy organization based in the District, said she was heartened by her mother-in-law and other black women who took part in the effort.

“It is important for black women to be empowered and to get an HIV test because it is important that we take care of ourselves in the same way that we take care of our families and our households,” said Tendai, 29, a wife and mother of a 7-month-old daughter.

During the 11 a.m. service, the Rev. Grayland Hagler, Plymouth’s pastor, and the Rev. Carolyn L. Boyd-Clark, encouraged members to dismiss themselves to go and get tested. The testing was so popular that the church had to move the testing center inside.

“You can’t afford not to know your status,” Clark said from the pulpit. “This is something that we have to be accountable to ourselves for.”

Nathan Dessaso, 52, was one of the men who got tested early in the day. “I try to get tested every few months,” Dessaso said, before entering the van and putting a cotton swab in his mouth as part of the test.

Laila Patrick, an HIV tester with the nonprofit organization Community Education Group, said the primary focus of the program has been in Wards 7 and 8 — where officials have identified high infection rates among heterosexuals living in HIV-prevalent, low-income parts of the District — but every weekend the group takes the van to any organization that will have it.

But Patrick said things are not always easy.

“A lot of women think that getting tested for HIV might cause an argument or lead to a breakup in their relationship,” Patrick said. “Often, it is not getting tested for HIV but the issues that go along with getting tested that presents the problem.”

Clark said being tested for HIV is an extension of self-love.

“We are so good with taking care of our physical bodies, we get our hair done, we get our toes done, but yet when it comes to our health and inner well-being, we miss the mark,” Clark said.

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